Saumur is a tranquil sort of town with a friendly ambience. It’s a great place for those who love culture, history, beautiful architecture, wine and great French cuisine. And, let’s face it, it doesn’t get much more tempting than that does it?!
History of Saumur
5000 years ago there were settlers here and just 2km from Saumur you’ll find the biggest funeral chamber in Europe, left behind by those early inhabitants. A huge dolmen is bizarrely, I think, located in the garden of a pub that is privately owned and currently for sale. If you’re interested in owning a property which dates back to probably about the time that ancient of Egyptian pyramids were being built – have a look at the Dolman de Bagneux!
The Romans were in the area but it’s thought they were probably not in Saumur though there are remains in nearby Tours and Angers.
The Plantagenets bought good times to the town in the 12th century. They built a bridge over the Loire which helped it prosper. Then Saumur, went to sleep for a few hundred years and not much happened. Until, that is, the religious wars began in France in the 16th century. Protestants from France and around the world found refuge and safety in Saumur. They bought with them prosperity and new ideas. They set up a university and changed the face of this tranquil place.
Urbanisation of Saumur came with Age of Enlightenment (mid 17th century). With it came an attempt to eradicate the bad old ways including sadly, the destruction of medieval buildings. They were considered dark, damp, small and unsanitary. The movement took place all over France and though today we are horrified by the destruction, then it was seen as a wonderful opportunity to improve living conditions and create a better place. New buildings went up, made with light coloured stone, wide avenues and airy squares were constructed. Luckily, laziness prevailed enough to keep some of those wonderful old buildings.
Saumur today is a flowery town. It feels prosperous and unhurried. Those cream coloured buildings have mellowed and contrast beautifully with their pale shutters.
It’s a great place for wandering. You’ll discover the remains of the ancient walls of the city, and plenty of surprises. Head to the Belvedere Hotel and push a button on a gate to enter a pretty courtyard, walk down “the streets of hell” and into Place st Pierre, lined with beautiful buildings some of which go back to the 15th century. Here you will find plenty of cafés and places to while away the hours while you enjoy the local wine and produce, like the friendly Bistrot de Place where the tables spill out onto the pedestrianised square on a sunny day.
Saumur is home to the third most important military school in France – it’s huge and takes up 20% of the entire town’s footprint. There’s also an important equestrian school, the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation which puts on a famous annual event.
The Musée des Blindés has a great collection of battle tanks from the First World War to present day.
There’s a huge chapel in the town (now a school) which became a pilgrimage site of major importance and spawned a rosary making industry in Saumur, in fact they still make them here.
Rumour has it that a certain Mick Jagger loves to visit Saumur, he’s been known to watch the local cricket club – and even to have a little bat himself!
Saumur Chateau – teeming with turrets
Don’t miss Saumur Chateau built in the 12th century. You can see it from miles around on its elevated position looking over the town and the River Loire. Under Louis XIV it became a prison and later a military barracks. All that chopping and changing took it’s toll on the castles famous good looks. However, it has been partially restored after architect Jean Drapeau found a picture by chance in a chapel in Paris showing it as a fairy-tale looking castle in 1410. The painting was once in the collection of the Duc de Berry and shows the castle with golden finials on beautiful pointy turrets. Drapeau restored the towers and gold details of this quite enormous building.
You won’t find much furniture inside, there’s a small collection but go for the view over the town and the river – it is stunning. In July and August there are free shows in the gardens (details on the Saumur Tourist Office website, below).
What to see and do near Saumur
Abbey Fontevraud – a few kilometres from Saumur, you’ll find the biggest abbey in Europe
Chateau de Brissac, the tallest castle in France and the poshest B&B ever!
Chateau du Rivau – the prettiest fairy-tale gardens you’ll ever see